Saturday, October 22, 2011

"Hi There Boys and Girls"

This post probably won't mean much to those of you who didn't grow up in Wichita, Kansas our the surrounding area, and I guess it's a result of us being back there for the high school reunion several weeks ago.

Since we don't get to Wichita much any more, and since Jane and I both were born and raised there it's probably natural for us to drive around the city and try to find the old hangouts and to revive memories of those days when we were kids. I mean the days before we even knew each other. Days when we were in elementary school. (Jane and I met in high school).

Well, as we drove around I had the radio on. I ALWAYS have the radio on. And instead  listening to XM I tuned to some local stations and started to reminisce about the days when I rode standing up in the front seat of a 55 Ford (seat belts? who had seat belts?) that my mom was driving to pick up my father from work. She always had the radio tuned to KWBB or KFH. I started remembering names that I should have long since forgotten. Characters from those radio stations. Names like Lee Nichols and Herkimer P. Pushbroom.

And as we drove, more names of radio and then television personalities that were part of my childhood kept popping into my mind

I used to rush home after elementary school to watch Deputy Dusty as he introduced the old black and white western that would be screened each evening.

And a guy named John Froome, a local guy with big city talent, would be The Old Cobbler and introduce cartoons. John was also the evening weather man and hosted a mid-day show with  live audience.

Bill McClain used to do a show where he was called Captain Bill. He had Popeye as a sidekick and they (what else) showed cartoons. He also did a show for a while called "Just For Laughs" that was really pretty good a quite a bit ahead of it's time. Bill was another who also served as the weather man. Remember him saying "It's a BEAUUUTIFUL day in KAKEland?"

Ah, but who could forget Freddy Fudd. He was supposed to be Elmer Fudd's cousin. He sat in a tree house and introduced cartoons as he sought to capture Bugs Bunny. What's really sad is that I remember the song he used to sing.

"I'm Freddy Fudd the forest ranger
Come on in and say 'Howdy Stranger."
I look for fires, and that ain't funny,
But my biggest job is to catch Bugs Bunny."

Freddy was played by a local guy named Henry Harvey. Henry was another jack of all trades when it came to broadcasting. He was a graduate of Friends University and lived just a few blocks from the campus. He had a great singing voice and was often used in community productions.  But in my young heart his greatest roll started every year on Thanksgiving Day. Late on that afternoon, on channel 10, KAKE, he would become Santa and kids across the city would park in front of the TV to watch Santa (along with a really lame puppet called KAKEman) as they counted down the days until Christmas Eve. Then we would watch him load the sleigh and blast off to deliver toys to boys and girls all over the world....and we knew it wouldn't be long before he hit our place. ("are you serious about that Clark?")

And who could forget Major Astro. He was played by a Tom Leahy and was another multi-talented local guy who donned the uniform of an astronaut and made us believe that he was actually one of the guys with The Right Stuff. He introduced cartoons and we watched.

My favorite character that Tom portrayed was The Host. The show aired after Johnny Carson on Friday nights. This was on when I was in college and was for a more "mature" audience. His task was to introduce one of those old black and white horror movies. The Host was a Frankenstein sort of character who couldn't do anything right. He thought he was much smarter than his co-host Rodney. Rodney didn't speak and The Host had a bit of a Boris Karloff accent. You can actually find clips of this show on YouTube. It's a hoot.

And does anyone remember Mack Sanders? He was a country-western guy with a band who hosted a show once a week in the evening. I can't remember much about it except that it was on his show that I first saw Roy Clark.  Mack Sanders bought up a bunch of radio stations, moved from Wichita and  did quite well. I know....I remember the most useless stuff.

And Cecil Carrier? Does that name ring a bell? Cecil was one of the weather men who reminded us that we lived in Kansas and tornado's really were an option.

Most of these guys have gone on to that great broadcast studio in the sky but they had an impact on a generation of kids growing up in Wichita. The product that they created was good clean fun. The kind that parents didn't worry about when we were sitting so close to the TV screen that our noses almost touched it.

I had an idyllic childhood and discover the older I get, the more I enjoy reflecting on the fabulous 50"s

Thursday, October 13, 2011

We Are The Pioneers

I walked into the indoor courtyard at the Wichita Airport Best Western hotel looking for my High School Reunion.  I initially thought I had the wrong room because the courtyard was full of old people. I was sure this group had just left the "Early Bird Special" at the local Country Buffet. I was wrong. This WAS my high school class and they didn't look a day older than me. OUCH!

We were the class of 1966. We graduated from Wichita High School West. We were known as the Pioneers.

"Our team has no fears. We are the Pioneers."

And so we were. We were on the cutting edge of a group of kids known as Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964).

We entered West High in the fall of 1963. Brought together from several Junior High schools we started the process of creating a new group identity.....


We discovered the joy of  Friday night football games and the thrill of victory. The football team lost two games that first year but won every other game during our high school career. We didn't know what it felt like to lose.....


"We're from West High, couldn't be prouder,
And if you can't hear us, we'll YELL A LITTLE LOUDER."

We had only walked the halls of West for about three months when a Friday afternoon was interrupted by the static of the intercom as someone from the school office announced that our president had been shot in Dallas. That weekend before Thanksgiving seemed overcast as we joined our nation in mourning and wondering what this tragedy wold mean for our country, our world, and our own futures.....


Because we were the second generation of teenagers accustomed to Rock and Roll, we were quite comfortable listening to Doo Wop or the Four Seasons or The Beach Boys...even Elvis...on KWBB and KLEO as we drove whatever vehicle we could commandeer. But early in 1964 our musical lives were changed by what came to be known as The British Invasion. We started dancing to a new beat. Music (as well as hair length) would never be the same.....


In our junior year, class rings were purchased and by the end of that school year we anticipated having an "upper classman" (or woman) turn our ring with a kiss.

We went to prom and dated and worked part time jobs. We even attended class most of the time. We would drag Douglas Avenue on a Friday night, turning around at Sandy's on the east. We hung out at Griffs on West Street and discovered the delight of pizza at the Pizza Hut.

Jane and me with David Converse, who I attended school with grades 1 through 12.

In May of 1966 we gathered at the Wichita State Fieldhouse for graduation ceremonies. We were going to go out into "the real world," and so we did.....


And on that night we separated and scattered in 500 different directions. Some went to college, some started jobs that would become careers, others joined the service and found themselves in far away places. A classmate, Arnie Tinkum, died inVietnam. And with his death, the Pioneers discovered the cruelty of that "real world."

Over half of our class left Wichita. We married, graduated again, started new jobs, bought houses, had kids and discovered that somehow we had crossed that dreaded threshold of being 30. But life was good, the war was over and America was a wonderful place to live.....


We, who had grown up during "Gas Wars" paying under 25 cents a gallon for gasoline, were shocked to see it push over 50 cents a gallon. We thought the world would end when it crested a dollar. It didn't. We adjusted....


We witnessed the birth of the Superbowl, Watergate, the resignation of President Nixon, the K car, the microwave oven, the video recorder, the Fonz, Charlie's Angels, the A Team, Oprah, the impeachment of President Clinton over the definition of "is." We were there at the dawn of the computer, the Walkman, the cell phone, the digital revolution, GPS, the iPod, iPhone and iPad. We were even there for Disco....


Sitting in the sill on D Hall.

Ten years after graduation we were crisscrossing the country talking on CB radios. My handle was Streakin Deacon. We wore bell bottom pants, leisure suits and platform shoes....


We were even there when country music (oh lord) made a resurgence. It was a new kind of country. No more Loretta Lynn and George Jones, it was Garth and Clint and Tim and Faith and Shania. Oh dear God, please let me meet Faith and Shania.

Driving around Wichita now, it's hard to find my childhood. The house I grew up in is gone, replaced by a Penney's parking lot in Town West Shopping Center. My elementary school is gone, replaced by a restaurant. Even the place where my father worked (Santa Fe Shops) is gone. Just a deserted, abandoned field.

Old entrance to Santa Fe shops.

These days we communicate as a class with a website (thank you, Cindy). We join Facebook and send texts over our "smart phones." And though we WERE the Pioneers, some of us are asking grandchildren to show us how to program our DVR.

Now....we gather in a hotel for our 45th reunion, but instead of cars and girls, we're thinking about bulges and bumps and bunions and bifocals and Bell Tones and bay windows and bridges and baldness....and Ben Gay. I realize that I've kept my hair but I've lost my waistline.

A thoughtful touch at our reunion was a balloon release. Two large helium filled balloons containing the names of deceased classmates were sent skyward. As I watched them climb into the sky I couldn't help but hope that I can keep my name out of one of those balloons at the 50th reunion.

And so we lived through America's golden age, her greatest days. We started life in a "Leave It To Beaver" atmosphere. Looking back from our vantage point now life then seemed so simple...and safe...and it was.

And now we focus on our adult children....and grandchildren. And we hope they will know the blessings we've enjoyed. 

With retirement looming it's easy to start wondering as we look back. Did we make a difference? Did we accomplish anything? Did we matter?

Well...sure we did. We lived and loved and led productive lives....


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Thunder Road

(To be read as though you're reading a cheap detective paperback novel. Think of Joe Friday.)

Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning I found myself "riding dirty." 

While in Wichita for my high school reunion I checked Craigslist and found a Chevrolet SSR at a good price so I called my friend Randy. He's an auto broker and had been interested in an SSR. He called the seller and made a deal and I agreed to finish the transaction and drive the car back to Denver.

Problem? No tag. No temporary tag. I'd have to drive over 500 miles without benefit of legal cover.  I'd be riding dirty.

Now I've driven a car before without a tag. You know, something that I bought and drove a few blocks or even across town, but this...this was big. This was 500 miles with no cover.

I worked on my alibi. I had it all down pat. They could throw me in the hole. They could use the rubber hose on me but I would not change my story.

Here was my response: "Whaaaat? You mean it's wrong? I wish someone would have told me. I had no idea it was against the law to drive a car without a license tag."

Yeah, that's what I planned to say.

I was reminded of an old black and white movie starring Robert Mitchum. It was called Thunder Road and it detailed guys in the 50's who ran bootleg whiskey in hopped up cars.

I envisioned myself as one of them as I drove that purple hot rod across I-70 on a cloudless autumn day.

The strains of the movie soundtrack ran through my mind. I tinkered with the words...

"Let me tell the story. I can tell it all
About the mountain boy who ran illegal in the fall

Randy did the dealin. Tim, he drove the load
And when his engine roared they called the highway Thunder Road."

This run would be the holy grail of driving without a tag.

Leaving Wichita late on Tuesday afternoon I found myself on sensory overload. I was inspecting every car for signs of the Law. I knew if they were coming toward me I'd be okay but I couldn't let some cagey patrolman approach on my rear flank.

I had some cover. Jane was driving our car and I positioned her behind me with specific instructions. "Don't let anyone get between you and me." She didn't. One other thing I did was to put a dealer's advertisement on the rear bumper where the tag should go. I hoped the Law would think it indicated a car out on a test drive. I also counted on the tinted windows being dark enough to make the Law assume there was a temporary paper tag stuck in the back window.

We pulled in to Hays, Kansas, and decided to spend the night. Hiding the car out of sight I slept fitfully, wondering if the SWAT team had been sent to find us yet. If so, they failed.

Wednesday morning we loaded into the two vehicles, filled up with fuel and hit the highway. Early.  While the cops were still in the donut shops.

For the next 300 miles cops were everywhere. My palms grew sweaty as I gripped the wheel tighter every time I saw another patrol car. I spotted nine. that's right. NINE. And I dodged everyone.

And then, just when I thought I was home free I spotted a patrol car coming up behind Jane. I got on the phone and called her, "Keep as close to me as you can." And he stayed on her bumper. We were on a two lane and for 20 miles he rode her bumper. I kept praying that he'd turn off. He didn't. Then we came to one of those passing areas. I moved far to the right. Jane stayed on my bumper. The patrolman pulled out to pass. I'd be vulnerable, uncovered, naked. No tag. Would the jig be up?

No!!! He pulled around Jane and with my heart pounding he passed me. Whew! That was close. Adrenaline surged through my body. I never felt so alive! Just 20 more miles and I delivered the car.

"And there was thunder, thunder, over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine and a hot rod was his load.

And there was moonshine, moonshine to quench the devil's thirst
The law they swore they'd get him but McDonalds got him first."